Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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****Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture

by Apostolis Doxiadis

Reviewed January 20, 2004.
Bloomsbury, New York, 2000.  First published in Greece in 1992. 209 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #5, Literary Fiction

How could I possibly resist a book described on the cover as “a novel of mathematical obsession”?

Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture tells of a young Greek boy who’s puzzled when his father and uncle describe his uncle Petros as “one of life’s failures.”

He discovers that Uncle Petros was once a mathematical prodigy, and even was a professor of mathematics at a prestigious university.  However, he wasted his life trying to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture, a famous problem that may be unsolvable.  Or did he waste it?

I felt a great kinship with the narrator as he discussed his own mathematical studies:  “I’ve never regretted my years as a mathematical hopeful.  Learning some real mathematics, even my tiny portion of it, has been for me the most invaluable lesson of life.  Obviously, everyday problems can be handled perfectly well without knowledge of the Peano-Dedekind Axiomatic System, and mastery of the Classification of Finite Simple Groups is absolutely no guarantee of success in business.  On the other hand, the non-mathematician cannot conceive of the joys that he’s been denied.  The amalgam of Truth and Beauty revealed through the understanding of an important theorem cannot be attained through any other human activity, unless it be (I wouldn’t know) that of mystical religion.  Even if my education was meager, even if it meant no more than getting my toes wet on the beach of the immense ocean of mathematics, it has marked my life for ever, giving me a small taste of a higher world.  Yes, it has made the existence of the Ideal slightly more believable, even tangible.”

This is a novel about mathematics, but it’s also a novel about genius, about obsession, and about ones life work.  I found it fascinating and delightful.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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